Early Morning Opera, Tyondai Braxton: Incomplete enchantments

Intriguing TBA Festival shows demonstrate that less isn't always more.

A pair of white telephones. A few white cardboard file boxes, one sporting an old fashioned typewriter on top. A black office chair. Those are the only obvious props used in Early Morning Opera’s new production, The Institute of Memory, one of the more intriguing offerings presented at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Its creator Lars Jan and a colleague stride onstage wearing all-white suits, and the whole set is lit by a piercing white fluorescent light fixture that turns out to play multiple functions.

All this black and white design might lead you to expect a comparably simple. But just as that typewriter conceals a video and music controller, the simplistic accoutrements only amplify by contrast the ambiguity of the enigmatic character the story revolves around: Jan’s father, who spent most of his life in Poland before fleeing to the US in the wake of the Nazi invasion in 1939 and subsequent Russian domination of the country.

Lars Jan built "The Institute of Memory" at PICA's 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Photo: Sophia Wright Emigh.

Lars Jan built “The Institute of Memory” at PICA’s 2015 Time-Based Art Festival. Photo: Sophia Wright Emigh.

After an opening scene involving a couple of soldiers in a forest that doesn’t quite make sense until the end, followed by a couple of other seemingly unrelated scenes, writer-director-actor Jan breaks the fourth wall to set up the journey he’s taking us on: a quest to recapture his father’s deliberately concealed past, why he kept it hidden from his son (who grew up in his mother’s home after she fled her husband when Jan was a child), and how their relationship evolved as Jan tried to learn more. The prospect of solving that mystery is what keeps the audience engaged in Jan’s personal story. Ultimately, though as presented in this incarnation, the answer proves less satisfying than it might have.

The Institute of Memory presents this twisty story in fragmentary fashion, presumably because that’s how Jan discovered it over the years, so we feel his puzzlement as he teases out facts from shadowy, fading memories. The show alternates dramatized segments with narration to keep us oriented as we see Jan assembling his father’s hidden past from hospital records, bureaucratic transcripts of Polish government spy reports and wiretaps, elliptical statements from his father over the years, and other scraps. Gradually, we learn that dad was involved in Cold War machinations, though maybe not as deeply (or, frankly, as interestingly) as we might assume after hearing the early clues.

The production occasionally nods to contemporary relevance by mentioning Edward Snowden and how Jan’s father’s experience with an intrusive government parallels our own — then immediately assures us that such a comparison would be facile, one of many meta- moments that keep pulling us out of the real story. In fact, the story’s basic emotional fuel — a son trying to understand his mysterious father — is likely sufficient to hold our interest through the relatively tight production, thanks in part to Jan’s continual varying of storytelling means — photos, narrative, re-enacted scenes (sometimes played for effective humor), sound, choreographed movement.

But by sticking too close to Jan’s actual chronology of discovery, The Institute of Memory ultimately fails to provide a full sense of emotional fulfillment. We pretty much figure out what Jan’s father was up to long before the show’s climax. In reality, that realization didn’t align chronologically with Jan’s own emotional coming to terms with his father’s life, but theater can solve that inconvenient truth. Maybe sensing this, Jan adds a kind of coda that tries to wrap it all up in a kind of dual monologue, obliquely gestures back to that initially obscure opening scene, so that we understand the source of his father’s lifelong deceptions and connect them to contemporary life. And they do it while running.

It’s an impressive aerobic feat (you can understand almost all the breathless speech), but physical exertion can’t replace missing dramatic momentum. Nor can intellectual realization substitute for emotional climax. The Institute of Memory might pack more of a punch if it really proceeded on two clearly differentiated parallel chronological lines — Jan’s father’s life, and Jan’s own discovery of its secrets — rather than scattering the shards of both so haphazardly, or at least undramatically. Had the two narrative strands been arranged so that our understanding of what happened to Jan’s father coalesced about the same time as his own emotional coming to terms with their relationship, the impact might have been much more powerful.

Still, the show’s tight construction, varied and creative theatrical devices, astute use of sound (including a brief snatch from another 20th century Pole, Henryk Gorecki’s famous third symphony) and dazzling design (that way cool fluorescent light sculpture, which is continually reconfigured into various space-suggesting forms, including the schematic floor plan of his father’s tiny Boston basement apartment) make The Institute of Memory worth experiencing, and Jan’s work worth following — for me, the latest in a long line of worthy TBA discoveries.

Tyondai Braxton: Hive1

This being TBA, I proceeded directly from Jan’s misty world of memory in Portland5’s Winningstad Theatre to a music concert down the street at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall.

At the center of the stage, a guy hunched over a wire-bristling gadget, fiddling with various switches and buttons as swirly electronic sounds whooshed and thundered from Lincoln’s potent sound system. Slippery beats blooped and squealed trippily over various electronic textures, sometimes roaring to near ear-splitting levels. Multiple simultaneous tracks, percussive claps, ominous rumbles, thumps you could feel in your chest, plenty of stereophonic effects — Tyondai Braxton’s Hive1 electronic music project feels like a quintessential headphone experience, like electronic dance music without the regular dance rhythms.

The music proceeded in sections that seemed to last between five and ten minutes, the start of a new one often signaled when all but one instrumental line dropped out. Braxton’s astute sense of texture allowed him to intricately weave various sonorities together and apart in often compelling and surprising ways. Yips, shimmers, clicks, sampled forces, echo effects, a huge rushing sound about halfway through — Braxton kept things moving.

Yet that didn’t always keep it interesting. The acoustic simplicity of analog synths kept timbres bright, metallic and eventually sometimes grating, like listening to various electric dental devices. After awhile, I started to crave the richer overtones and depth of vibrating gut or even metal strings, gongs, human voices. As often with electronic music, if you can’t dance to it, and there’s nothing to look at except a guy futzing with equipment while nodding his head rhythmically with all the visual interest of watching an electrician rewire your malfunctioning toaster, what’s the point of experiencing it live? Braxton didn’t even talk to the audience, just a shy “hi” as he walked on and an appreciative wave as he left. Even the cheesy stage smoke, low lighting and those great speakers didn’t really lift this show beyond what you might see at a club like Holocene or Doug Fir — no small achievement, but also hardly the kind of multimedia or transmedia experience that many of us count on TBA to bring us each year.

The video above shows Braxton doing a similar solo performance in LA a few months before this one. I wish he’d presented a more immersive experience here like the one he staged a couple years back at New York’s Guggenheim museum, in an installation setting that mixed his trippy music (performed with three more musicians) with projections and creative lighting. That’s the kind of TBA show that’s worth seeing, as well as hearing.

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